“Without a doubt it’s easier in Albania. There’s a certain psychological freedom there to be able to physically recreate the city – something that I don’t think exists within the UK. Partly this stems from the fact that we are very strictly bound by planning and building regulations and health and safety policies, but I also think that we aren’t used to self-help and self-build solutions.”
The following post is an insight to what I consider a very interesting piece of research. Julia Heslop, currently a PhD student, compares two self-help settlements and explores how practices can be “transferred” from one place to another. I would like to thank Julia for taking her time to do the interview, which I know is “time off” in a busy moment of her career. In her words:
1. What’s your research about?
My research examines self-build housing in conditions of austerity, specifically observing how participation in housing can offer an alternative to the developer-based norm for low-income groups in the UK. To do this the project aims to translate knowledge and practices of self-build house construction across borders, from aninformal settlement in Albania – where there is deeply embedded knowledge of participatory housing methods -to the UK, in order to question, from the outside, our own approaches to housing for low-income communities. Through this translocal approach, I want to examine whether participation in housing offers a progressive stance on the shaping of homes and the urban environment, enabling the empowerment of residents and giving them more of a stake in their immediate environment.
In Albania my research is based in the informal settlement of Bathore, on the outskirts of the capital city, whilst in the UK I’m working with a group of residents from a local housing association/homeless charity in Newcastle upon Tyne. For the UK project, the idea is that we observe and evaluate the Albania case and use this as a jumping-off point – an example to help physically test some of these participatory methods of design/build.Although we are working with an architect and a joiner,the aim is not to create a full housing model with services, insulation, electrics and water, but a temporary‘shell’ structure that offers a vision of how this model could be developed into working housing in the future. The process will emphasise and attempt to track different forms of learning – learning across different scales of governance, from the neighbourhood level to the city government level, long term personal development and intra-group learning and learning across geographical distance and difference, between the unlikely partners of Bathore and Newcastle.
After the completion of the build, the house created will become a hub for an exhibition and a programme of events (talks, film screenings and workshops) co-curated by all participants, documenting the process and examining wider issues to do with housing in an austerity context, from both the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ perspectives, and looking at what progressive alternatives might be found.
2. What were the main issues you encountered along the way in both contexts?
In Albania I observed the process of house construction and also interviewed local people about this and the wider development of their neighbourhood. I also examined the effects of a participatory upgrading schemeundertaken by a local planning NGO. It was particularlydifficult to understand the political framework whilst I was there. Party politics are everywhere and they are physical – bound up in unfinished road networks andopen sewers, which are the results of failed party promises, whilst the people in Bathore still fight for proper recognition. So the political situation is far from clear and it is often difficult to get a concrete understanding of the neighbourhood and the forcesshaping it, particularly when interviews contradict each other. Furthermore, there is a lot of tension between the capital city and Bathore which made the research process interesting, but difficult. It is a 15 minute drive from the centre of the capital city yet there is a huge psychological gap between the residents of the so called ‘formal’ city and those of Bathore. Part of this construction of ‘difference’ stems from uncertainty regarding property rights post-communism. There has been big controversy over whether to restitute land to the pre-communist owners or divide it equally amongst the farmers who were working on the land at the fall of communism. Both policies seem to have been put in place in a very ad-hoc way and many residents of Tirana feel that the people now living in Bathore – migrants who came from the mountainous northern region of the country and who self-built their houses on what was once the land of acollective dairy farm – stole the land by squatting there. This uncertainty regarding property relations has created a toxic political and social tension between the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ areas of Albania.
In Newcastle the main issue has been collaborating with different institutions and organisations, which has madethe process very slow. It has very much been a stop-start process, with long delays and changed directions. At the moment, because of changes within the housing association I am working with, I am developing a new project within the confines of my research aims. I do however think that constant change is usual with a project of this kind. It requires a more reflexive approach to learning and doing which isn’t necessarily recognised by research councils, or by many universities.
Within the project so far the participatory process has often been challenging. Offering a democratic space for people to exchange design and build ideas is difficult to create, and it’s been important to fully think through and plan the ‘groundworks’ of the project by establishing concrete aims and values, and building a network of trust between group members. Giving voice to each participant means being sensitive to each individual’sneeds – so it’s a constant balance that needs to be found.
Furthermore, and this is something that I’ve discussed below, the acquisition of land for the project has been abig issue. We originally planned to develop a permanent housing model, but because of the problem of land availability in the area that we’re working in, this has been impossible. So the project has had to change from being permanent to being a temporary project. In a sense I think that this might work better, and perhaps offer a glimpse of a model to be developed properly in the future.
3. What about regulations: where is it “easier” to do participatory housing?
Without a doubt it’s easier in Albania. There’s a certain psychological freedom there to be able to physically recreate the city – something that I don’t think exists within the UK. Partly this stems from the fact that we are very strictly bound by planning and building regulations and health and safety policies, but I also think that we aren’t used to self-help and self-build solutions – the dichotomy between the ‘professional’ and the ‘amateur’ hinders people in the UK from even thinking about participating in building or recreating the city. When I’m in Albania I really feel the possibilities of place and urban space – the potentials of the urban ‘cracks’, those leftover, forgotten spaces that perhaps sit between the formal and the informal and aren’t on the radar of speculative investors. This feeling of endless potential is because Albania is still a place in flux, without the money that comes from EU membership and still, in a sense, reeling from the depth of its isolation during communism.
But this feeling of freedom doesn’t necessarily come from lax regulations, mostly it stems from the fact thatstretching the regulations is common practice and people do this in order to make claims on urban space in a way that we aren’t able to do in the UK. As a result illegal development is as much part of the ‘formal’ city as it is the ‘informal’ city. Every new balcony protruding from the façade of a cracked communist housing block is informal. Every bricked-up terrace, every new veranda is a violation of planning regulations. So the breaking of planning laws is commonplace and isn’t restricted to the informal settlements, but in a western context, it’s more difficult to create this flexibility of urban space, with rigid, unmoveable planning systems. I do howeverbelieve that there is potential for more participation within urban space, for more temporary activities or adaptable spaces – particularly in light of growing economic uncertainty – however we do need policy change to trigger and enable this.
So I’m really interested in how we can create a balance between the unplanned (like in Albania) and the over planned (like in the UK). Because only if urban planning systems become more open and less difficult to penetrate can more equitable urban spaces be produced through participatory methods. Again perhaps this requires a slow pace of change which needs to be reflected in policy, making it easier for local groups, as opposed to large developers, to build on a smaller scale, particularly if they are able to show that there is a learning/capacity building process occurring. Wales’ One Planet Development policy attempts to do this – allowing fordevelopment on open countryside to make it easier for people to build and live off the land. So there are examples that can be used and built upon and perhaps this idea is something that could be translated in some sense to an urban context, or through more flexible types of zoning/land use policies.
4. What do you think are the main barriers to expand the use of participatory housing?
Apart from planning/building regulations and health and safety policies, which are often opaque and complex, I think the biggest barrier in the UK is the politics of land.I say the ‘politics’ because I think that this is a political problem in the UK. The issue doesn’t so much lie in a lack of inner city land, but instead in who owns it and who has the right to develop it. In one sense we need to see local authorities free up more land for local groups to use for self-build projects, and in another sense we need a land value tax or penalisation system to discourage land hoarding by developers and large corporations.
I think that finance is also another big hindrance for low-income self-builders and this is another lesson that we can learn from places like Albania, where people buildincrementally, sometimes over a period of 10-20 years, so they invest in their homes gradually, which makes it easier for people on lower incomes to build. It also makes housing more flexible as families get bigger and as lives change.
We also need to free ourselves from a preoccupation with self-build as promoted by Grand Designs – those expensive, one off mega-projects – and reclaim this as aprocess of expanded learning. To scale self-build up and to create wider programmes of learning or education forlow income communities will require financial support. There are some fantastic self-build housing organisations who are working with homeless and unemployed groups, and even a couple of great examples of housing associations supporting groups of people to self-build for social rent. Yet these are few and far between, and in my view, can only be scaled up through wider funding mechanisms and more importantly through the collaboration of many different groups, from local authorities, to jobcentres, training providers, construction companies and architects offices.
Getting different organisations – public, private and third sector – to collaborate and work across scales of governance, from the neighbourhood level to the central government level is vital to scale participatory housing up. So working with formal institutions of governanceand framed within policy is important. Whilst I don’t always agree with how our systems of governance function I do believe that no model can fully operate on a large scale outside of these systems, particularly for potentially vulnerable or low income communities, so collaboration is important. Even within the Albania case,although termed ‘informal housing’, the neighbourhood has to operate within certain political frameworks in order to make claims for infrastructure.
Unfortunately, within the UK, there isn’t the organisational capacity for extending participatory housing projects to low income groups and I think this issue is deepening as the cuts to local authorities bite deeper. In Newcastle, the council want to experiment with new housing types and help low income communities seeking better housing, but it’s impossible because they now lack the capacity and the knowledge to do this. We are seeing an increasing reliance on consultants to do the work that councils used to have expertise in and this is worrying.
Furthermore, it’s worrying when self-help solutions become the only option. Self-help is a double edgedsword in that sense and it is something that is growing. The government are trying to off load state responsibilities to the community/voluntary sectors and then onto individual households and this is something that needs to be recognised. However, if we think of the Albanian case and consider the idea of making claims to urban land and resources through self-build then there is potential for a much more progressive form of self-help to emerge in the UK context. There are ways that collective self-build can be seen as empowering groups, ‘the right to the city’ in action, challenging and changing the balance of power, working against market relations by redistributing power and giving wider access to resources. However I do believe that in order to make this happen, networks of support need to be created, as I mentioned before; practice-based networks that bring together architects, planners, local authorities and peopleto make planning and building processes more integrated and open and to begin a practical dialogue that is much needed. So participatory and community-based initiatives don’t need to be complicit with austerity politics, or with the ‘rolling-back’ of the state, they can generate social development as well as land-based development – whilst not removing land, resources or responsibility from the state.